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Japanese got another chance to ponder war and peace following the June 23 commemoration of those killed in the Battle of Okinawa in 1945 — this was the recollection of the battle for Saipan, now part of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, 61 years ago.

In a significant act of praying for peace and seeking reconciliation, the Emperor and Empress on Tuesday offered prayers before war-related memorials on the island, mourning for all those killed in the war irrespective of their nationality. The couple’s heart is something the Japanese must share, especially when Japan has difficult times with neighboring countries over Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni Shrine, the memorial to the nation’s war dead, which served as a spiritual vehicle for war mobilization in the years of Japan’s militarism.

It must be remembered that the Saipan visit in the year marking the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II — also the Imperial couple’s first trip abroad solely for the purpose of praying for the souls of those killed in the war — was not the idea of government officials but the Imperial couple’s. This reflects their strong wishes for peace and reconciliation.

The suffering that modern war caused people has never left the couple’s hearts. In 1975, the couple, as Crown Prince and Princess, visited Okinawa and narrowly escaped a Molotov cocktail attack. In the summer of 1995, they visited Nagasaki, Hiroshima, Okinawa and Tokyo’s war victims memorials.

At a news conference in 1981, while he was still Crown Prince, the Emperor pointed to four war-related days that must not be forgotten — June 23 (the day when the Imperial Japanese armed forces ended their organizational resistance in the Battle of Okinawa), Aug. 6 and 9 (the days of the atomic bomb attacks in Hiroshima and Nagasaki) and Aug. 15 (the day of Japan’s surrender in World War II). “I would like to think deeply about the preciousness of peace and dedicate myself to maintaining peace,” he said.

Shortly before his departure from Tokyo for Saipan, the Emperor made clear the purpose of the trip: “This time, on soil beyond our shores, we will once again mourn and pay tribute to all those who lost their lives in the world war, and we will remember the difficult path that the bereaved families had to follow, and we wish to pray for world peace.”

Importance should be attached to the fact that the Emperor and Empress visited the Monument of the War Dead in the Mid-Pacific, which is for the souls of soldiers and noncombatants of any nationality killed in the region during the war, the Marianas Memorial, which honor the Chamorro and Carolinian people who died during the Battle of Saipan, and the American World War II memorial for U.S. soldiers killed in the battle.

The Imperial couple also made an unexpected visit to a memorial for Koreans killed in the battle. Their visit, which must sooth the hearts of many Koreans, is a meaningful gesture in view of the current tense relations between Japan and the two Koreas.

Japan took over Saipan from Germany after World War I and ruled it under a League of Nation mandate. Many Japanese migrated there, especially for sugar cane farming. In the battle that lasted from June 15 to July 9, 1944, the U.S. took control of the island, which formed part of Japan’s inner defense line. After the battle, B-29 Superfortress long-range bombers were able to use the island as a base for their missions to carry out air raids over Japanese mainland cities.

On July 6 that year, Lt. Gen. Yoshitsugu Saito of the Imperial Japanese Army, Vice Adm. Chuichi Nagumo of the Imperial Japanese Navy (the hero of Pearl Harbor), and other military leaders killed themselves just after ordering the remaining 3,000 men to go forward in a final suicide attack.

“The number of Japanese who lost their lives reached 55,000, among them 12,000 residents including children. At the same time, we must not forget that the U.S. forces lost nearly 3,500 and that more than 900 islanders, including innocent children, fell victim to the battle,” the Emperor noted.

Indoctrination by the Imperial Japanese armed forces led to tragedy for Japanese residents. Many killed themselves by holding onto hand grenades or jumping off cliffs. The imperial couple also visited Banzai Cliff and Suicide Cliff.

Saipan, now only 3 1/2-hours’ flight from Japan, is a popular tourist spot for many Japanese. But some of them appear to regard it as just a sunny, fun place. The Imperial couple’s Saipan visit reminds visitors there of the importance of remembering the island’s history and praying for the souls of all those who died in the battle.

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